Sony's SMP-N200 has all the trappings of a killer streaming-media box. The spec sheet is filled with excellent services, especially on the video side, including Netflix, Amazon Instant, Hulu Plus, and Vudu. Unlike the Roku 2 XS, it's also DLNA compatible and does a decent job handling your local digital media files, including MKV and Xvid. Most importantly, it packs all that functionality into a box that costs $100.
All of that's true, but the SMP-N200 gets a lot of the small things wrong. The user interface is poorly designed for a streaming-media box, wasting precious screen real estate and often forcing you to browse smallish cover art that's impossible to read from the couch. There's a search function, but it doesn't search any of the video services you care about. For music on your home network, cover art isn't supported at all, even if you've dutifully organized and downloaded it yourself.
All these missteps end up making the SMP-N200 less fun to use than the Roku 2 XS or Apple TV, even if it technically offers more functionality. Don't get us wrong, the Sony SMP-N200 is a competent streamer with a lot of raw functionality, but it's not the first streaming box we'd recommend.
The Sony SMP-N200 has an excellent set of streaming-media services, but its user interface holds it back. If you're navigating the video section, you can see only five total services at once. Compare that with the excellent layout of LG's Smart TV interface, where you can see upwards of 10 services at a time and the icons are larger. Sony's interface just doesn't do a good job of maximizing the available screen real estate.
Sony also lists tons of niche video services that aren't that useful to most people. It wouldn't be so bad if those services were merely dumped at the bottom of the list, but quality services like Vudu and CinemaNow are interspersed. On the upside, the Sony SMP-N200 feels fast when navigating, so that makes it a little less painful to scroll pasts a bunch of services to find Vudu.
The Netflix interface is a good example of the SMP-N200's interface issues. The standard Netflix interface has relatively large cover art and lots of menu options, but the Sony has smaller cover art and few menu options visible.
Most home video devices, like the Apple TV, are moving toward HDMI-only connectivity, but the Sony SMP-N200 still offers a full set of video outputs. That's good news if you have an older TV without HDMI, but it does add to the size of the box.
Sony has also done a great job overhauling the remote's design, ditching the cluttered, generic remote look for a simple design that makes a lot more sense on a streaming-media box. Nearly all the buttons make sense and are well-positioned, with a few tactile nubs here and there to help you navigate by feel. The sole confusing button is "SEN," which brings you straight to Sony Entertainment Network services (Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited, formerly known as "Qriocity"). It's a classic Sony mistake of pushing its own inferior services, when a dedicated Netflix button would be much more useful.